Tag Archives: Westboro Baptist Church

Louis Theroux on the Death of Fred Phelps (from the Guardian)

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Pastor Fred Phelps: ‘An angry, bigoted man who thrived on conflict’   Photograph: Rex Features

 

What motivated the man behind the placard-waving, virulently homophobic Westboro Baptist Church, AKA ‘the most hated family in America’? And what next for the church and family following his death?
Louis Theroux
Monday 24 March 2014

Pastor Fred Phelps is gone, called to glory if you believe the teachings of his hate-spewing ministry, the Westboro Baptist Church. To me it seems more likely that his remains are mouldering away somewhere, obeying the laws of physics and biology. But, either way, it seems an appropriate moment to reflect on the man and his legacy.

I had some history with “Gramps”, as his family and followers liked to call him. I made two documentaries about his church for the BBC: The Most Hated Family In America in 2006 and America’s Most Hated Family in Crisis in 2010. In all, I suppose I spent about a month with the members of the WBC, trying to figure out what induces them to dedicate their every spare moment – when they aren’t holding down respectable jobs as lawyers, correctional officers or salespeople in their hometown of Topeka, Kansas – to flying around the country, standing as close to funeral-goers as they are legally allowed and waving hate-filled placards with slogans such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”, “Fags Eat Poop”, and, of course, “God Hates Fags”. They became notorious for picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the WBC teachings, the soldiers were being punished for fighting for a nation doomed in the eyes of God for its tolerance of homosexuality

Their main scriptural inspiration is the passage in Leviticus that mandates the death penalty for gay sex (“Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is an abomination”) though, for some reason, the adjacent verses, which proscribe astrology in similar terms, never seem to excite the WBC quite so much. Not to mention that Christ had nothing to say on the subject of gay sex or shouting at funerals and plenty to say about kindness and humility.

The WBC has tended to be a family affair, overwhelmingly made up of Gramps’ lineal descendants and their spouses. They live in suburban Topeka, in a collection of houses with connected gardens, which they call Zion. Gramps was the prime mover behind the practices of the church. He founded it when the idea of abominating sodomites was mainstream in American Christian circles. In some respects, it was the times that changed, leaving the WBC behind in their dogged adherence to old-style fire-and-brimstone Bible-thumping. But it’s also the case that homosexuality seems to have been an obsession with Pastor Phelps.

According to legend, the WBC inaugurated their anti-gay pickets when a Topeka park became a cruising ground in the 1980s. The Phelps decided to make signs and demonstrate against the practice. The WBC doctrine evolved into a belief that the whole of America was fallen and damned in God’s eyes, as was anyone who fought under the US flag – or, indeed, who wasn’t a member of the Westboro Baptist Church. We are all either “fags” or “fag enablers” – you, me, Desmond Tutu, Princess Di, Donald Rumsfeld, Billy Graham, Liz Taylor – though possibly not Robert Mugabe: Gramps had a soft spot for him. An eternity in hell is the fate of anyone who doesn’t get baptised into the WBC and travel the country waving hate-filled placards at political events, colleges and places associated – even in the most tortuously oblique way – with tolerance of homosexuality.

While I was with them, they had a regular local picket of a hardware store that sold Swedish vacuum cleaners. The Swedish government had imprisoned a pastor for homophobic preaching, and for the WBC that made the store a legitimate target for a ritualised Biblical smackdown. For the newcomer, these pickets were bizarre, not simply because of the venom of the signs, but also because they clashed with the banality of the family interaction. For the Phelpses, it was another day at the office – there was a water-cooler ambience of chit-chat. Meanwhile, everyone, even the youngest child, was carrying placards saying: “Thank God for 9/11”, “Your Pastor is a Whore” and “Fag Sweden”.

There is no question that their caravan of religious bigotry has made life miserable for thousands of people, many of them vulnerable mourners hoping to pay tribute to recently departed loved ones. Among their proposed picketing targets was the funeral of young Amish children who had been shot by a deranged gunman. In the tortured logic of the WBC, those kids died because their parents weren’t out holding pickets denouncing homosexuality. In the end, the WBC called off the event only after they were promised airtime on a local radio station, effectively holding the community to ransom.

But the WBC also made life miserable for themselves and inflicted a distorted and poisonous view of the world on the youngest members of their own family, holding over their heads the threat that any deviation or failure of commitment (not going to a picket or socialising with outsiders) would result in a lifetime of banishment. Ex-members – of whom there are quite a few – can have no contact with the church.

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Louis Theroux with members of the Phelps family during the making of his first documentary. Photograph: BBC

Given their eagerness to court controversy, it’s not surprising that there are misapprehensions about the WBC. Unlike hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the WBC members never claim to hate gay people themselves, only that God does. I’m pretty sure there was at least one gay man in the congregation of the WBC. Even on the pickets, the Phelps family members could be civil. For most of the Phelpses, the hostility they expressed was a role that they enacted, dictated by a doctrine they had imbibed from their church leader and paterfamilias. You can find videos on YouTube of counter-demonstrators having cordial chats with Phelps picketers. I don’t doubt that, if you knocked on the door of one of the second generation of the family, said you had some questions about Jesus, they’d let you in and maybe offer you a glass of water. Pastor Phelps was a different story: he was a hater by instinct.

I’m proud to say he took against me from the moment we met. I asked him how many children he had. He disliked this question – I think he found me trivial. The interview was cut short. Over subsequent days, we continued filming but I hardly saw him. I had the feeling he was hiding from me. We eventually crossed paths again, in church one Sunday after his sermon on the subject of America’s coming tribulations, in which he bellowed: “You’re going to eat your babies!” One-to-one, Gramps still had the remnants of a folksy, plainspoken charm, but underneath was a bitter contempt for humanity in general and me specifically. I asked him how he could possibly know that the WBC members were the only people bound for heaven. “I can’t talk to you – you’re just too dumb,” he said. It seemed that I was a hellbound sinner. Well, at least I was in good company.

I’ve heard people speculate that Phelps had repressed gay leanings or that perhaps he was sexually assaulted when he was young, leading to a lasting animosity to homosexuality. Personally, I doubt it. I think there may be a small clue to his mindset in his having attended West Point military academy: I suspect he hated it there and had a lasting dislike of the military, which partly explains the picketing of funerals. But there may be no simple explanation for his behaviour. He was just an angry, bigoted man who thrived on conflict. There are credible reports from his disaffected offspring (four of his 13 children left the church) that he was physically abusive to his wife, Marge; he was violent to his children and had an intermittent problem with pills. He was also a lawyer and won some civil-rights cases, receiving an award from the NAACP. But he liked going against the grain.

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Members of the Phelps family protesting outside Arlington National Cemetery. Photograph: MCT via Getty Images

The members of the WBC like being attacked for their activities. They thrive on the presence of counter-demonstrators – the patriotic bikers who would sometimes turn up and rev their engines to drown out the WBC’s songs at military funerals and also the students who turned out in droves to sing and register their dissent when the WBC held pickets near their campus. For the church, this meant they were getting a reaction and they would quote Bible verses to the effect that being hated by the world was a sign of godliness. Indifference was harder for them to deal with, although they have faced plenty of that as well without being much deterred.

It has been reported that Pastor Phelps had been “excommunicated” from his own church before he died (probably this doesn’t mean much more than being prevented from preaching; I doubt he was out wandering the streets). In 2010 I heard a similar rumour. Then, the word was that Gramps was panicking about a multimillion-dollar lawsuit brought against the church by the family of a dead soldier whose funeral they had picketed. (The WBC won the case on appeal.) The rest of the church viewed Gramps’ failure of nerve as evidence of lack of faith in God’s plan and they put him on the naughty pew for a time-out.

The truth is, despite being its founder and main preacher, Gramps had been a marginal figure within the WBC for some years. When I made my documentaries, the dominant force was Fred’s daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, a gifted organiser who could sling religious obloquy while holding four separate placards and wearing a bandana with a message of religious hate – in a different context, it would have been impressive. In fact, underneath her programming, and despite all the pain she inflicted in the name of her religion, she is basically a kind person.

 

Shirley Phelps-Roper on a demonstration with her son, Luke.

Shirley Phelps-Roper on a demonstration with her son, Luke. Photograph: Sipa Press

But my sense is that Shirley has been pushed aside by an axis of WBC men, among them her brothers, Tim and Jonathan, and also the WBC convert Steve Drain, with Steve possibly in the driving seat. This is speculation on my part, but it struck me when I spent time among the WBC members that Steve was the most likely to take over the church. Steve had originally come to the WBC to make a documentary (called Hatemongers) and ended up moving in and bringing his wife and two daughters from Florida. It was striking that he too called Pastor Phelps “Gramps”. He had become disconnected from his own parents and found a surrogate family in the Phelps clan. Steve is an intelligent man but arrogant. In personality, he is closer to Pastor Phelps than any of Gramps’ natural children. I met and interviewed all three of Pastor Phelps’ sons who remain in the church: they all have the slight air of being survivors of an abusive upbringing.

Where the WBC goes from here is anybody’s guess. I haven’t been following its doings as closely in recent years. Evidently they have attracted new members from outside the family. A few years ago there was news that a US marine and his family had been baptised into the church. Just as striking was the report that a British man had moved to Topeka from England, joined the church and married Jael Phelps. A few weeks ago I found a photo on Twitter of Jael at a picket holding a tiny baby. In its abundant procreation, the family has a guaranteed supply of future recruits.

I don’t expect huge changes with Gramps’ death. The church has always operated according to the dynamics of a large family rather than a cult. Cults don’t typically excommunicate their charismatic leaders. Families do: they put their ageing parents in a granny annex and take away the keys to the car. Maybe, as with other families, the bereavement will bring them together. In another context, that might be a comforting thought. In this case one rather wishes that the second generation would continue to feud and fragment – and perhaps in the process moderate their way of thinking and get in touch with some of the apostate children they no longer see.

The more chilling thought is a backward-looking one, of how one man’s legacy is likely to continue. Gramps’ offspring, and their offspring, have been raised to believe that abuse is kindness. The natural bonds of family have been braided into this twisted thinking so that children who love their parents and siblings can’t separate those feelings from their sense of obligation to the church and its creed. And when they leave they also take with them the nagging guilt and fear that haven’t just lost a family: they have lost their only chance of salvation.

 

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March 25, 2014 · 09:34

Fred Phelps: Let’s Picket His Funeral…With Love (from “The Gay Christian”) by Brandon Wallace

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Fred Phelps, organizer and leader of the hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church, is reported on his death bed at the moment. It is news that is quickly spreading throughout social media, with flagrant tweets and Facebook statuses that are somewhat amusing, yet slightly disheartening.

Let me begin by saying that I am, obviously, not a fan of Fred Phelps nor the WBC. I believe they are vile, bitter, and downright dangerously cultish. They have nothing to do with Jesus Christ and the Gospel of the Kingdom.

However, it is moments like this that I have to re-evaluate where I stand, theologically. You see, I believe Christ has grace for people like Fred Phelps as much as he has grace for me. Even though I’m not quite sure I believe in a literal hell of eternal burning, I do believe there is a hell that we put ourselves into, even after death, until we can break free of certain chains and mentalities (racism, sexism, homophobia) that keep us in injustice – and I hope that Phelps does not stay there long. I wish hell upon no one, because I want all souls to encounter the true love that God has to offer.

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As I read some of the tweets, I realize that we are not going to get anywhere as a society until we begin to truly return hate with love. As Martin Luther King, Jr. so famously put it: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” There are many people calling for picketing of Phelps funeral, as it is Phelps himself that became famous when he picketed the funeral of Matthew Sheppard in 1998, and has been picketing funerals ever since. But how would this help things at all? It would only be a small, self-serving act of vengeance that would only continue to raise the hate level of those that are still in attendance at WBC.

One fact I found quite interesting is that Nate Phelps, Fred’s son that left the church many years ago and is now an LGBT advocate, said that Fred was “excommunicated in August of 2013.” Why was Fred excommunicated? At this point we can only speculate, as the WBC has not released this information at all. One can only hope that Fred woke up one morning and said, “Wait a second…I was wrong.” While this is quite a stretch of the imagination, it is not entirely impossible. Maybe he was actuallyreading Scripture one day, and realized he was on the wrong side. I like to think that he was flipping through John and ran across the verse in Chapter 13 that says, “Your love for one another will prove that you are my disciples.” Then, as he read it, he thought, “Oh, crap!”

But nonetheless, the fact is, Fred was kicked out for some unknown reason, and is now lying on his deathbed, with no one around him. He is dying alone, facing the consequences of decades of hate. I only pray that as he embarks on eternity, he is able to let go of the hate and bigotry that has kept him tied down for so long. I pray that he is able to let go, not only of the hate and bigotry, but of the things that ultimately led him there in the first place. Why did he hate homosexuals so much? Only Fred probably knows that. I hope he is able to let go of that, too.

My final prayer is that people do show up to his funeral as a show of pageantry. I hope they show up with large, decorated signs and billboards. I hope they line the streets leading to the funeral home, and I hope that they make sure they are seen. Finally, I hope every one of those billboards and signs read, “We forgive you.”

Maybe that little sign of love will do something to the remaining members of WBC, and show them that a life filled with hate is really no life at all, but that a life filled with love is the only way to live. I strongly believe that true Christianity – and what I mean by that is simply people following Christ in doing exactly what Christ wanted us to do – is simply having love for everyone, even your enemies, and fighting for justice throughout the world (1 John 3:23, Micah 6:8, John 13:35).

So, Fred, may you be released from the bondage of hate and bigotry, and may God prepare your heart and soul for eternity. Maybe one day in the ever after, I can look you in the eyes and say this to you face-to-face: I forgive you. May you also be able to forgive yourself.

Amen.

 

George Takei: “I take no solace or joy in this man’s passing. We will not dance upon his grave, nor stand vigil at his funeral holding “God Hates Freds” signs, tempting as it may be.
He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many. Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end.”

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‘Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.’ Norman Cousins

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Fred Phelps, the founder of the highly controversial anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church, has been excommunicated from the group and is close to death, his son has said.

 

Nathan Phelps, who left the church almost 40 years ago and as such lost contact with the core of his family, wrote a message on Facebook saying he had received the news and that he was “bitterly angry” that family-members were being blocked from saying goodbye.

He wrote: “I’ve learned that my father, Fred Phelps, Sr., pastor of the ‘God Hates Fags’ Westboro Baptist Church, was ex-communicated from the ‘church’ back in August of 2013. He is now on the edge of death at Midland Hospice house in Topeka, Kansas.

“I’m not sure how I feel about this. Terribly ironic that his devotion to his god ends this way. Destroyed by the monster he made.

“I feel sad for all the hurt he’s caused so many. I feel sad for those who will lose the grandfather and father they loved. And I’m bitterly angry that my family is blocking the family members who left from seeing him, and saying their good-byes.”

The Westboro Baptist Church rose to national recognition when it staged protests at a string of high-profile funerals declaring their “God Hates Fags” slogan, and was the subject of a Louis Theroux documentary entitled The Most Hated Family in America.

Based in Topeka, Kansas, it has also been criticised for broadcasting antisemitic and xenophobic views, and has picketed Ground Zero in the past.

Last year the church vowed to protest at a One Direction gig on the grounds that they were “crotch-grabbing little perverts”, and in 2009 Phelps, who is now 84, and his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper were banned from entering the UK to picket a school play.

Speaking to the religious information website Patheos.com, Nathan Phelps confirmed that he had heard the news from a number of fellow “ex-communicated” members of the family.

He is the sixth of Fred Phelps’ 13 children, and there are reports that around 20 members of the extended family have fled or been “exiled” since 2004.

 

from “The Independent”

 

 

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March 17, 2014 · 10:57

God Hates Fag Christmas – from our old friends at the Westboro Baptist “church”

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December 22, 2013 · 14:58

Westboro – Shirley Phelps

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December 7, 2013 · 08:30

Westboro’s “Pastor”

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December 7, 2013 · 08:27

Discrimination

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October 16, 2013 · 11:37

Russell Brand and the Westboro Baptist “Church”

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September 15, 2013 · 11:30

Louis Theroux and the Westboro Baptist “Church”

copyright BBC

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August 18, 2013 · 20:20

Westboro Baptist Church revisited by Louis Thereaux

copyright BBC

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July 20, 2013 · 21:05